Good news for “the righteous”?

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We are very used to thinking of Jesus as the friend of sinners. He famously ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and others of bad reputation. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is the righteous-in-the-eyes-of the world man who misses out while the sinner is made right with God. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the irresponsible son who gets the hug and the party; the dutiful, never-a-foot-wrong son finds himself outside and grumbling. And didn’t Jesus say he had come not for the righteous but to call sinners to repentance?

Among our Muslim communities, there are plenty of sinners. I am talking about the people who know they are lost, outside the pale, the backslidden, the hopelessly behind in what they believe God expects of them. Failed Muslims make a significant proportion of our prison population. Others stay out of trouble, but for various reasons are known as “not good Muslims.” In a sense, it should be relatively easy to take the good news to them, though it is not as easy as you might expect. However, I am interested in the other end of the spectrum, those seen as righteous.

When speaking of those sinner passages, modern translations often put the word sinner in quotes acknowledging they dubbed sinners by other people rather than by the scripture. Of course, it is quite legitimate to describe them as sinners and to also insist that all the so-called righteous were sinners too. In our zeal to reflect this emphasis of Jesus, we can refuse to recognise “the righteous” as anything but sinners by another name.

The reality is not so simple, neither in the scriptures nor the world today. According to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Whatever he may have been prior to taking the baptism of John, he started following Jesus as a man who was seeking to live a life pleasing to God (John 1:37, 40). Jesus welcomed Nathanael as a true Israelite and a man of integrity (John 1:47). 

Jesus called disreputable tax collectors like Matthew Levi and accepted the hospitality of Zacchaeus, but he also welcomed the respectable and the earnest. These were people who were seeking something more from God, alert to what God might do in their time, not necessarily driven by a sense of personal moral bankruptcy.

The Gospels speak of other people who were seeking to know God better, looking for the Kingdom. Anna and Simeon are two examples. In Acts, Ananias seems to have been a pillar of Jewish respectability (Acts 22:12). Cornelius and Lydia were devout God-fearers (Acts 10:2; 16:14). Within our Muslim communities there are people zealous for God and for right living. Sure, there are some who are consumed with making other people behave, like the stereotypical Pharisees, but there are also many with hungry hearts whose desire is to be acceptable to God. I have met some of them.

Ahmad was a former imam who had switched to part-time college chaplain and part-time bitcoin dealer. “It is harder,” he told me, “to practise Islam in Pakistan than in the UK.” I was puzzled. Surely in Pakistan there was a mosque on every corner, a loud call to prayer five times a day, the sound of the Qur’an piped through radios, and a universal expectation that he keep the fast in Ramadan? Surely no one batted an eyelid if you were diligent in your religious duties? 

“What I mean is,” he continued, “There is so much corruption and dishonesty. It is hard to live an honest life.” For Ahmad, Islam was not about being a Muslim rather than a Christian; it was about living for God.

In New Testament times, Jesus was good news for “sinners” and he was also good news for at least some “righteous”. I think we are pretty good at showing sinners how Jesus is good news; how about showing sincere Muslims that Jesus is good news for them too? Is the only way to first prove them to be sinners?

Imam N sought out a new teacher a couple of years ago. He was not content with the narrow tradition he was in. There had to be more. He found someone online. One day he sent me a link to a TV programme in which his new teacher was being interviewed on a Christian channel where he was explaining why reading the Psalms was so valuable for Muslims. Imam N is on a journey, prompted at least in part by what he has seen in the lives of Christians who befriended him.

Imam A has been an observant Muslim all his life, but from a young age he started seeking. What he was looking for was a spiritual master, someone nearer to God than he himself was, who could direct him and intercede for him. It is not that he saw himself as a hopeless sinner, but rather that he knew that he fell short. I think what he is looking for will be found most fully in Jesus. When Crispus the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth turned to Christ, he was not leaving a life of godlessness (Acts 18:8).

Mr S is a devout man, often moved to tears as he performs the required prayers whether at home or in the mosque. But he is always eager to respond when an invitation is given to a Christian event. He has often come to church on Sunday when an appropriate opportunity has been given him. 

But someone will say, you are not comparing like with like. Jewish people in the first century were steeped in the scriptures and looking for the fulfilment of the promises of God. Yes, they certainly had many advantages. My Muslim friends meditate on the example of Abraham and Moses, but the version they have is from the Qur’an. Some are fascinated by the picture of Jesus painted by the Qur’an. Deeply inadequate and flawed though that image is, for some it has been enough to get them started on a path that leads to the real Jesus.

These people are out there among our neighbours, our work colleagues, our clients and our students. Will we recognise them? Are we equipped to engage with them in ways that are helpful to them? And will they recognise in us the presence of Christ?

Ted Bearup

Diversity: The Variegated Grace of God

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I have been asked to post this article written for the Nazarene Theological College ‘Link’ magazine:

Recently I heard a canon of Manchester Cathedral comment that his experience of the Church in Manchester was of congregations of multi-racial and multi-cultural membership. Someone observed that this is probably an urban phenomenon, and would not be the case across the whole country.

The comment set off a train of thought in my mind. In 1981, when I arrived in Manchester as pastor of the Carmoor Road Church of the Nazarene, I found a small-but-not-too-small congregation that included people from many parts of the world as well as all over the UK. I discovered this diversity was unusual in the city, finding only one or two churches in our very mixed part of the city that reflected that mixture in any way. Indeed, African Christian students would often come to our church after first visiting churches (consisting of a handful of people) of their own denomination (where their churches numbered hundreds of members), reporting that they had been politely told that they ‘might be more comfortable somewhere else with people of their own kind’. They were often in shock at what they found in their Mother Church.

We wanted to reach out to our community. Given the significant proportion of our community that was West Indian, we wondered if we should focus reaching out to that ‘homogeneous people group’. We decided, however, to affirm our multi-racial and multi-cultural make-up as our strength: we would witness to the variegated image of God by our variety. The church did not grow rapidly, but it grew to accept diversity as normal.

The Manchester church was my introduction to the joy of worshipping and learning with the diversity of God’s people. My whole life of service since has been in multi-cultural settings, teaching in three Nazarene educational institutions all serving diverse nations, and returning to be a part of that Manchester congregation. It has become so much the norm that I feel a sense of shock when I find myself in a single-culture setting—which can happen by travelling only a few miles from my church.
What has happened in nearly 40 years? On one hand, church membership as a whole has continued to decline in Britain at an alarming rate. On the other hand, immigration over the past twenty years—under the generous and highly criticized policies of the government of the day—has brought a significant number of active Christians into the cities. An unexpected result has been the breath of new life these committed believers have brought to the often-dying local churches they have joined. Many have embraced the newcomers, and such churches are growing. It is a matter for thanksgiving and praise to God that diversity has become the norm across Manchester!

This is not a commentary on immigration policy, but an observation from its impact. And there are lessons to be learned from the debate over immigration that grips so much of the West right now. How do we respond to ‘the Other’ on our own territory? The tabloids, as well as prominent politicians, tell us to be afraid, to reject, and expel the Other—the ones not like us, whom we deem a threat to our own existence. What do we do when we discover that so many, even among those deemed ‘illegal’ and arriving via leaky boats, are brothers and sisters in Christ?

I have come to the conviction (that is not too strong a word) that God intends us to be all mixed together. The sin of Babel was the human attempt to be one homogeneous unit—one language, huddling together in one place. The work of the Spirit in Acts 2 brought languages and people together into one new whole. In fact, the whole biblical story of is one of migration—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all migrants who settle in foreign lands; Jesus was a (likely undocumented) migrant to Egypt as a child.

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The New Testament text that comes to my mind on this point, however, is 1 Peter 4:10, where the church is urged to be ‘good stewards of the manifold grace of God’. That word ‘manifold’ can be translated ‘variegated’, ‘diverse’, ‘pluriform’, or ‘many-coloured’. It is the same word used of Joseph’s famous coat, in Genesis 37. Peter’s focus is on the grace-gifts God gives which we are to give to each other. To me, when I look at the Sunday gathering in my own church (the same I came to those years ago), it describes the image of God, the imago Dei. Our tendency is to read Genesis 1:26 as speaking in the singular, of an individual image: ‘I’ am created in the image of God. But the fact is, the image is ‘male and female’, and can only seen fully in the whole of humankind and our manifold colours. ‘I’ am incomplete on my own, a partial picture of how God created us; ‘we’ fill out the picture, each adding our part. As the Godhead is triune, and diverse, so is His creation.

This translates into my everyday life as curiosity. When I meet someone different than me, or different than I have met before, rather than fearing the unknown I am curious to learn how this person expands my understanding and experience of the image of God in the human. In the past few years this curiosity has extended towards Muslims of many sorts. The experience has added more colour and texture to my sense of what God has done, confirmed my expectation that God loves them too, and expanded my wonder at the grace of God in Christ.

The Holiness Movement, of which I am an heir, stressed the meaning of holiness as separation—separation from sin, and, in its sectarian phase, separation from the world. At times it fell into a rather Pharisaic emphasis on keeping pure by avoiding any contact with the impure. A grave danger of the holiness-as-separation view is that it leads easily to other kinds of separateness, including racial and national, until churches become excluding rather than welcoming of strangers. When diversity is deemed a bad thing, as we are seeing in much of our world today, God’s grace becomes diminished to an unattractive narrow, monochrome, homogeneous spirituality of fear and reaction. But, when we catch a glimpse of the riotous diversity of sacred life springing from the creative Word, we can do nothing less than cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy’!

Hot Topics ticket info

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“Hot Topics” ticketed events will start at 18:30 and finish at around 20:30 unless otherwise advertised.

There will be tea, coffee and water available.

These events will normally take place on the first floor of the Emmanuel Centre at Nazarene Theological College. The room will be signed from the entrance. For directions and more information about the college, please see the NTC (event venue) page.

This event will be ticketed due to likely high demand, and so all participants will need to purchase a ticket (suggested donation of £10). As these discussions are not generally designed for children to take part, no concessions will be offered.

If you feel the event is worth more than this, you are invited to give more if you can afford to, and to complete our Gift Aid form. This allows us to reclaim the UK Income Tax or Capital Gains Tax on your donation back from the government, making it worth more at no extra cost to you!

NB: If you have previously completed a Gift Aid Form for MCSCI you do not need to give us a new one. Limited exceptions apply – please ask for details if you are concerned.

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Hot Topics general info

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All “Hot Topics” events will start at 18:30 and finish at 20:30 unless otherwise advertised.

There will be tea, coffee and water available.

Each of these events is a forum for discussion, and will be linked together to form a series – initially with one event each month.

These events will normally take place on the first floor of the Emmanuel Centre at Nazarene Theological College. For directions and more information about the college, please see the NTC (event venue) page.

There is no formal charge – however, we do ask for a donation towards the running costs of the centre, and suggest £10 per session would be appropriate. Feel free to give more if you can afford to – and less if you cannot.
If you pay UK Income Tax or Capital Gains Tax, please also complete our Gift Aid form, so we can claim tax relief on your donation back from the government. This makes your donation worth more, at no extra cost to you!

Documents

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